Alfalfa is an excellent source of protein. In fact, there is nothing readily available that produces more crude protein than high quality alfalfa. Deer will hammer it all summer and for as long as the plant remains nutritious into the fall. They will also start on it as early as possible in the spring. Also, a properly maintained alfalfa plot will last up to seven years and is fairly drought tolerant. Finally, there is a ready and well-established market for quality alfalfa hay. Since you need to cut the crop and remove the residue anyway to keep the field weed-free why not make some money?
Alfalfa also has downsides. First, alfalfa is primarily a summer food source. It turns brown quickly after the first hard frost and will be utilized less by deer thereafter. Also, it doesn’t green-up as quickly in the spring as winter grains or even clover, so it isn’t of much benefit during periods of high stress. Second, alfalfa can be tough to establish and maintain. The soil needs to be well drained or the crop will quickly flood out. Leaf hoppers love the leaves as much as the deer do, so you will have to monitor the plot regularly and treat it for bugs as needed.
Also, alfalfa is expensive to establish. You need to plan on liming, fertilizing and paying top dollar for high protein varieties. You’re probably looking at well over $100 per acre even if you do the work, more if you don’t. While this may not seem so bad when you amortize the cost over the life of the field, don’t forget annual fertilizer expenses that add about $30 per acre.
If you are selling the hay the math is a lot friendlier. In fact, alfalfa as a crop can be very profitable. But, unless you really want to get into this stuff, you are better off having the crop put up on halves by a local farmer. Under the right conditions, alfalfa is a great option so we’ll keep it on the list.